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Inside the cafeterias at major Twin Cities corporations, trays of gourmet sandwiches, fruit, pastas and other meals that employees didn't devour were once destined for the trash.

Not anymore. From General Mills to Target, a growing number of local companies are joining restaurants, hotels, schools, stadiums and caterers to send their leftover food to local soup kitchens and sites that feed people in need.

In the United States, about 30% of the food supply — or an estimated 133 billion pounds a year — ends up in landfills, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But there's a growing movement to reduce food waste, not just by composting, but by saving or reworking food — from restaurants reusing scraps of food to organizations like Second Harvest Heartland "rescuing" surplus food from growers, manufacturers and grocers. Now more local corporations are joining the movement.

"Right now, food waste is a really hot topic," said Dianne Wortz, who helps run food rescue at Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank that provides food to food shelves, food pantries and other meal programs. "They are so happy there's a safe and easy way to get that food to people that are hungry."

The city of Minneapolis recently launched a new program working with local companies and restaurants to box up leftovers and drop them off at nonprofits such as Pillsbury United Communities, which feeds people at their dining sites and food shelves. Nearby, the nonprofit Loaves & Fishes started a pilot program five years ago with Best Buy that's grown to include 19 businesses — from big corporations like Medtronic to smaller ones like Wuollet Bakery — all of which donate surplus food to feed the hungry.

And across the metro, a new app is helping boost the number of companies able to find a home for extra food.

The free app, MealConnect, was developed in 2017 by Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the nation, thanks to a $1 million grant from Minnesota-based General Mills.

Food banks across the U.S. are now using the app, which allows organizations to post when they have excess food; the app then matches them with an agency that can pick up the donation.

In Minnesota, Second Harvest Heartland and other agencies tackling hunger debuted the app in 2018, when the state hosted the Super Bowl, helping "rescue" about 152,000 pounds of leftover food from NFL-sponsored events across the metro.

Now, more than 100 Twin Cities corporations, caterers, stadiums, special events centers, school kitchens and small restaurants are using the app to connect with 25 agencies — from soup kitchens to homeless shelters — who feed the hungry. Wortz said it's like "Uber for food" that can be quickly donated.

"We can find a home for almost every donation," she said.

This year, Second Harvest is expanding the MealConnect effort with a new pilot program, training 18 volunteers to help collect and deliver donated food since not all homeless shelters or agencies have enough staff to do so. And later this summer, Second Harvest plans to expand the app for the first time outside the metro, bringing it to St. Cloud.

A growing need

Thousands of hot dog buns from U.S. Bank Stadium after a concert or game could be sent to landfills. So could trays of homemade fresh sandwiches served up to corporate employees at General Mills and SuperValu's headquarters.

And this winter, when Kowalski's grocery store had two events canceled because of snowstorms, the eggs, breakfast pastries, fresh fruit, granola and yogurt that was already prepared could have gone to waste. But instead, all that food is ending up on plates of hungry people.

Three Minneapolis Public Schools also started a pilot program this year to donate extra casseroles, cooked vegetables and sandwiches that were already prepared by their school cafeterias but went uneaten. And the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport donates ready-to-eat meals that airline travelers don't eat to Loaves & Fishes, one of the 25 agencies that receive food through the MealConnect app.

Loaves & Fishes has had such a huge response from the app that the nonprofit added extra coolers and freezers this year to make room to store more food.

The Minneapolis nonprofit is on pace this year to provide 1.3 million free meals — up from 1 million meals last year — to meet a growing hunger problem in the state. Cathy Maes, the executive director, said there's a rising need among the state's growing senior population who are on fixed incomes.

So far this year, Loaves & Fishes has received about 76,000 pounds of food through its program, which has provided 38,000 meals. Without the new influx of free prepared meals from corporations, restaurants and agencies, Maes said she would've had to raise more money to buy food to supply 31 dining sites, where chefs reheat and repurpose leftover lasagnas, egg bakes, pastas and stir-fry to dish to those in need.

"It's super high quality food," Maes said. "People think there's way too much food that's wasted. It's just a real win for us."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141